Psychological Wellbeing of African Missionary Nuns

acculturative stress of African Catholic Missionary Nuns (ACMN) serving in the United States. This chapter is divided into five parts. The first part explains the meaning of acculturation and adaptation experiences specific to missionaries. This part emphasizes (1) different perspectives from social and behavioral scientists examining the phenomenon of acculturation (2) different theoretical models describing the stages of acculturation (3) dissimilarities between immigrants and missionary immigrants and what makes the two unique. The second part of this chapter examines the emotional and psychological distress missionaries experience as a result of acculturative stress. The third part focuses on coping strategies and resilience of missionaries. The fourth part introduces the existing literature in the area of acculturative stress of missionaries, emphasizing on limited empirical research in this subject and the necessity for further research in this area of study.

Part One: Background and Overview

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Different Social and Behavioral Scientific Perspectives Concerning Acculturation. The cultural identity possessed by people is defined as the extent to which people identify with their home country or country of destination, or the host country (Kimber, 2009). In the past, researchers tended to concentrate on the so-called “culture shock” that is experienced by people exposed to a different culture for the first time, as well as how people adapted to their new cultural environment (Kimber, 2009). More recently, researchers have also examined more complex issues such as identity and multiculturalism, including cross-cultural communications, sociocultural and psychological adaptation, and relationships (Kimber, 2009). The overarching purpose of the research to date has been to identify what factors tend to contribute to a sense of alienation in a foreign land and how people tended to respond to these changes by acculturating to their host country, and these issues are discussed further below.

Different Theoretical Models Describing the Stages of Acculturation. The growing body of knowledge concerning how the acculturation process takes place has caused some researchers to reevaluate existing theories with respect to the concept of acculturation. Originally conceptualized as being a unidimensional process in which people who came into contact with a host culture would assume the characteristics of the new culture over time (Flannery Reise, & Yu, 2001). Acculturation has been originally viewed as a unidimensional model of acculturation that comprises a linear relationship between people culture in their home country and the culture that exists in their host country (Buscemi, 2011). According to Buscemi, “This unidirectional model describes acculturation as the shedding off of an old culture and the taking on of a new culture. It was believed that individuals only had two options; either they acculturated or they remained in their own culture” (2011, p. 40).

Based on more recent research concerning the underlying concepts, though, there is a growing consensus that acculturation is more than merely a unidirectional process (Buscemi, 2011). In this regard, Buscemi advises that, “The focus on understanding immigrant groups was more on understanding cultural pluralism where a more multidimensional model of acculturation was being accepted. This revised model describes this process with adaptation to a host culture as no longer requiring the rejection of the culture of origin” (2011, p. 40). The expanded conceptualization of acculturation emerged following the recognition of the constraints that were involved in a strict application of the unidimensional model because it failed to capture the more robust aspects involved in the acculturation process (Gibson, 2001).

Today, many researchers subscribe to the concept of acculturation as a mixed process that includes both intraethnic and intracultural diversity influences (Buscemi, 2011). According to Buscemi, “Acculturation is being describes as a bidirectional process more and more. The bidirectional process of acculturation involves the simultaneous acquiring, retaining or relinquishing of the characteristics of both the original and the host cultures” (2011, p. 40). The revised model of acculturation regards biculturalism as being the foundation of the process (Buscemi, 2011). This was an important step forward in the research concerning acculturation because it recognizes that different people experience the process in different ways. In this regard, Buscemi points out that, “The bicultural model assumes that acculturating individuals can maintain two different cultural identities simultaneously. The bicultural process involves learning communication and negotiation skills in cultural contexts that involve separate sets of rules” (p. 40). In sharp contrast to the conceptualization of acculturation being a unidirectional process, researchers today increasingly subscribe to the bicultural model because of its ability to take into account the coping mechanisms that are being used at any given point in time, as well as how these are used to facilitate acculturation. For instance, Buscemi concludes that, “The emphasis is now on the individual’s ability to negotiate between the two cultural worlds rather than losing connection to the original culture” (2011, p. 40)

Contemporary researchers studying acculturation are increasingly recognizing that the process involves far more than just changes in values, behavior, attitudes and identity; in fact, acculturation includes social, economic and political transformations as well (Choi, 2001). Changes in these factors will depend on the individual circumstances of the African missionary nun. For instance, if an individual nun left relatively affluent living conditions in her home country in exchange for the squalor of an American inner city slum, she might well experience the same types of culture shock that are characteristic of travel from the developed world into the third world. In this regard, Gibson (2001) confirms that the process of acculturative change is affected in part by the location where missionaries settle, the ethnic and social class composition of the communities in which they settle, as well as the presence or absence of co-ethnics within those communities.

Distinguishing Features of Immigrants and Missionary Immigrants. Whenever people pull up stakes and move to another country, there are generally some very compelling reasons for doing so. On the one hand, immigrants may be motivated by economic factors such as gainful employment or for political or religious reasons that will allow them to secure a better life for themselves and their children. On the other hand, missionary immigrants are motivated by vastly different reasons, which relate to their religious commitments and personal zeal for service to others. As noted above, if missionary immigrants leave a relatively affluent and comfortable lifestyle in exchange for a life of austerity and poverty, the acculturation process might be far more difficult and time-consuming. If missionary immigrants leave a lifestyle that was already relatively modest in exchange for life in a host country where the living conditions are far better, it is not surprising that the acculturation process is easier. For instance, according to Haderle (2008), “The implication in the literature to date is that European immigrants, though accustomed to state churches, relatively swiftly adopted the principle of voluntary work in their parishes and thus adapted to the American system of free churches” (p. 26).

Nevertheless, even missionaries with optimal coping skills and resilience may experience some difficulties in the acculturation process. Although there remains a paucity of timely and relevant research concerning the acculturation process experienced by African missionary nuns serving in the United States, some indication of what is involved can be discerned from similar experiences in other developed nations including those in Western Europe. According to the account of one veteran African emigrant to Europe, “Arriving in Europe, the immigrant is thrown into a severe culture shock from which she hardly ever recovers. The illusion that Europeans are nice and welcoming is the first to go” (emphasis added) (Akomolafe, 2001, p. 95). Given the Orwellian qualities of air travel in the United States post-September 11, 2001, it is easy to see the similarities in the experiences of Akomolafe in Europe to what many African missionary nuns must encounter upon their arrival in the United States. In this regard, Akomolafe emphasizes that, “In many parts of Africa, especially in the villages, total strangers are mostly welcomed with huge smiles and a desire to help. The immigrant’s first contact with Europe is with stony-faced immigration officers with the countenance of a wolfhound and the friendliness of the Gestapo” (2011, p. 96).

Moreover, unlike African missionary nuns who enjoy the support of their religious order, most immigrants find themselves on their own in their efforts to navigate their way through the bureaucratic maze that is Homeland Security in the United States today. As Akomolafe points out, “When she is finally admitted into the country after a bruising encounter at the port of entry, the senses of the poor immigrant are further assaulted when she finds out that he needs more than his expensive visa to even begin to settle down” (2011, p. 95). This issue becomes even more complicated if immigrants have failed to secure the appropriate residence permits which are required for legal accommodation (Akomolafe, 2011).

For African immigrants finding themselves in this predicament in the United States, the dreams of prosperity and affluence they had are dashed against the harsh realities of life on the bottom rung in America. Indeed, Akomolafe (2011) notes that instead of the American Dream, many African immigrants find themselves worse off, at least in the short-term, making the acculturation process even more challenging. In this regard, Akomolafe reports that, “The bewildered immigrant who had a spacious apartment in his native land is forced to make do with sleeping in other people’s living rooms or ‘box’ rooms in which a single bed hardly fits. Money in the pocket also happens to dry up fast, especially when it is not being replenished” (2011, p. 95).

There are also some differences in the degree of religiosity between African immigrants and immigrant missionaries to the United States. The latter are motivated by a personal commitment to serve based on their religious beliefs while the former will likely be more motivated by economic or political reasons rather than any particular religious motivation for immigrating to the United States. This assertion is supported by the findings of a study of first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States where Usarski (2008) found that, “When it comes to religious practice, one can easily notice that the descendents of immigrants are not very interested in what is happening in [their parents’ church]. They are more concerned with integrating themselves into [mainstream] society than in maintaining the traditions of their ancestors” (p. 41). Taken together, there are a number of distinguishing features between missionaries and non-missionaries based on their different levels of interactions with local nationals as well as their respective levels of social support. It is reasonable to suggest that these differences also contribute to higher levels of stress as part of the acculturation process, and these issues are discussed further below.

Part Two: Emotional and Psychological Distress Missionaries Experience as a Result of Acculturative Stress

Emotional Distress. The research to date that compared the acculturation patterns between missionaries and non-missionaries has generally determined that missionaries experience more direct contact with locals compared to other expatriates who report less direct contact with local nationals as well as higher levels of social support (Navara & James, 2002). Other sources of emotional distress for African missionary nuns serving in the United States include separation from close family members and the stress this places on personal relationships with others in the home country (Peterson, 2008). According to Peterson, “Years away from home take their toll on family relationships, too. Most missionaries stay in the field for three or four years before coming home for a year of deputation, during which they visit all their sponsoring churches to give reports on their work and to drum up support” (p. 5). While these separations are experienced differently by African missionary nuns, it is reasonable to posit that such separations can contribute to the sense of homesickness and the emotional distress that can result. As Peterson points out, “Missionaries find that a lot can happen to an extended family in three or four years’ time. New members are born; others die. Meeting a family member is sometimes like meeting a stranger” (2008, p. 5). Besides these and other sources of emotional distress, African missionary nuns may encounter a number of sources of psychological distress as well, and these issues are discussed further below.

Psychological Distress. Because many African missionary nuns may leave a black society where race is not an issue to serve in parts of the United States where racism is still evident, the sources of psychological distress can be numerous, and these sources have a longstanding tradition. For example, during the early 20th century, African missionary nuns were assigned to small communities of missionaries which were frequently located in impoverished rural regions of the United States (McNamara, 1998). In some cases, these nuns were assigned to housekeeping or menial duties rather than spiritual work (McNamara, 1998). In this regard, McNamara (1998) reports that, “We must not lose sight of the hardships for the sisters themselves. Even in Europe, but much more commonly in the missions, a community was generally very small. In rural areas and missions, education, medical help, and all sorts of other services were generally supplied by groups numbering less than a half-dozen women” (emphasis added) (p. 581).

In reality, though, even with the hardships, homesickness and cultural changes that are involved, traveling overseas to live and work in a different country is an exciting proposition for many young people, including missionaries. For instance, according to Peterson (2008), “From the outside looking in, the life of missionaries appears exciting. They work in exotic locales, learn new languages and become immersed in other cultures for years at a time” (p. 5). Indeed, a number of studies have shown that the initial acculturation process is easier than the return home. In this regard, Peterson (2008) adds that, “[Missionary] is a life that would seem to require a lot of adjustment – and it does. But sometimes, experienced and retired missionaries say, coming home is more of a culture shock than leaving” (p. 5). The manner in which individual African missionary nuns accomplish this adjustment is directly related to their coping and resilience as discussed below.

Part Three: Coping Strategies and Resilience of Missionaries

The research to date has also determined that the stress experienced by missionaries and non-missionaries is perceived in different ways with correspondingly different coping and adjustment mechanisms being used in different ways (Kimber, 2012). For instance, according to Kimber (2012), “When missionaries perceive higher levels of stress, they are more inclined to engage in activities such as praying, seeking pastoral support, or trusting God to relieve the stress” (p. 212).

Although non-missionaries enjoy a higher level of social support compared to missionaries, missionaries do in fact have the support of their religious order in the United States as well as the same personal resilience factors that contributed to their becoming nuns in the first place. By drawing on their inner spiritual reserves, African missionary nuns respond to the acculturation process in healthy and positive ways. In this regard, Kimber emphasizes that, “Spiritual development in missionaries is positively related to psychological development and other aspects of sociocultural adjustment. Missionaries with lower levels of psychological development may be more vulnerable to the effects of spiritual difficulties during cross-cultural adjustment” (2012, p. 212).

These findings are congruent with other studies that have found that missionaries who practice spiritual disciplines on a routine basis as part of their new lives in a host country also enjoy meaningful support from their mission agency (Andrews, 1999). These nuns tend to “have a clear vocational call and have greater spiritual life satisfaction also tend to experience greater adjustment to the mission field” (Andrews, 1999, p. 108). In addition, research has shown that missionaries reporting higher awareness of God also report superior team relationships; by contrast, missioners who exhibit lower levels of spiritual development are more likely to experience problems acculturating to their new environment (Kimber, 2012).

Another effective coping strategy that is available to facilitate the transition from the home country to a new host country is to replicate as much as of the home culture as possible in host country communities. For example, according to Haderle (2008), “Scholarly literature shows a broad consensus on the enormous significance of the founding of ethnic parishes in establishing ethnic culture and identity in the United States” (p. 26). In sum, it would appear that African missionary nuns generally possess the resilience needed to acculturate successfully by virtue of their religious beliefs and the support they enjoy from their religious order and the rewarding work they perform. Although the exact number of African missionary nuns serving in the United States today remains unknown, current estimates place the number at a few hundred at most, and there has been relatively little research into the acculturative stress experienced by these individuals to date. Nevertheless, the juried literature and popular press provide some indication of these issues as discussed further below.

Part Four: Introduction of the Existing Literature in Acculturative Stress of Missionaries

America’s long history as a white dominant society has presented African missionary nuns with a number of sources of acculturative stress in the past (Arthur, 1999). Beginning around the early 20th century, missionaries began work in earnest among American blacks and Native Americans (Arthur, 1999). According to McNamara (1998), “In fact, even after the United States was officially removed from the list of mission fields in 1908, American blacks and Indians continued to be listed among the ‘pagan nations.’ Reservations and segregated neighborhoods continued to be targeted by foreign as well as domestic missions, and the religious women they produced were rarely assigned to serve white communities” (p. 585). It was in this environment that one of the earliest African-American religious missions in the United States was launched. In this regard, McNamara (1998) reports that, “In the early twentieth century, with legislation pending in Georgia that would have removed white sisters from black schools, Elizabeth Williams founded the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, a community of black sisters, to teach the black children” (p. 585). Even though their services were not needed at the time, the events that followed served to motivate the religious leaders of the order to expand their services further. As McNamara points out, “When the laws failed to pass, the Handmaids transferred their mission to New York’s Harlem, where so many southern blacks were emigrating. Starting there with a day-care center for working mothers, they expanded their work among American blacks and in the West Indies” (1998, p. 585).

Today, a number of African missionary nuns make the Handmaid’s mission in Harlem their destination for spiritual service. For example, Sister Georginah Githinji recently arrived in the U.S. from Kenya to begin her service at Handmand’s Harlem resource center. According to Calypso (2009), “Githinji, a Kenyan Catholic nun, came to the States in 2004 to look for membership in a new congregation of sisters, or nuns. After visiting a group of Kenyan sisters who were already living in New York, Sister Githinji found the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, an order of African-American nuns based in Harlem” (para. 1). As some indication of just how few African missionary nuns there are serving in the United States today, an empirical observation about Sister Githinji by Calypso (2009) is highly illustrative: “Although Sister Githinji was a lifelong Catholic, who attended Mass daily back home, meeting the Franciscan Handmaids in the U.S. marked the first time that she had ever come across an order of sisters who happened to be African-American” (2009, para. 1). Indeed, it may have been the fact that Sister Githinji navigated her way to the Handmaids that made her acculturation process straightforward and unproblematic. In this regard, Calypso emphasizes that:

Like Mother Theodore, a co-founder of the Franciscan Handmaids, Sister Githinji, 38, comes from another congregation of sisters. Githinji, who is the only woman currently undergoing the process of becoming Franciscan Handmaid, says she doesn’t think much about the burden of carrying on the legacy of the order. In fact, she doesn’t see it as a burden. The Church has a lot to teach, says Sr. Githinji, ‘I am part of the new generation, it’s like a wellspring, once you get thirsty, [you] come back, it keeps on feeding.’ (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 4)

In fact, it may just have been spiritual serendipity that led this newly arrived African missionary nun to Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. For instance, according to Sister Githinji: “I didn’t know that there were African-American sisters,” says Sr. Githinji, “I saw them for the first time in New York [and] I decided to join the Franciscans” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 1).

Although they are not necessarily commonplace, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary is not the only African-American mission actively serving in the United States today. According to associate Professor of Systemic Theology at Boston College, Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary is just one of three orders of African-American nuns in the United States: “In addition to the Franciscan Handmaids, there is also the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland and the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 3).

The acculturation process also appears to be facilitated by the fact that these three orders of African-American nuns in the United States are involved in active service rather than reflective practice. In this regard, Calypso reports that, “Nuns are sometimes classified by the manner of their respective vocations, which means essentially that they can be viewed (depending on the order or congregation) as either ‘cloistered’ or ‘apostolic’ sisters” (2009, para. 3). On the one hand, nuns serving in cloistered settings “devote their lives to prayer and contemplative lifestyles within convents or even monasteries” (Calypso, 2009, para. 3). On the other hand, the three orders of African-American nuns serving in the United States are of the apostolic classification. In this regard, Calypso reports that, “Most of the sisters that we see in public are usually identified as Apostolic nuns such as Mother Theresa whose Sisters of Charity order of nuns serve as Apostolic sisters in a wide swath of countries throughout the world” (2009, para. 4).

Although African missionary nuns are assigned to a number of Catholic sister congregations across the country, the three African-American orders described by Dr. Copeland were formed in response to racial and religious segregation in the United States (Calypso, 2009). According to the Franciscan Handmaids’ historical account, the order was created in the early part of the 20th century in Georgia as a response to proposed legislation that would have outlawed white Franciscan sisters from teaching African-American children (Calypso, 2009). This threat to the ability of the nuns to fulfill their religious commitment provided by motivation for the founding of the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. For instance, according to Calypso, “Reverend Ignatius Lissner, a member of the Society of the African Missions (SMA), a 150-year-old Catholic French missionary organization, had been working to set up schools in Georgia for black children” (2009, para. 4). Even though the proposed legislation failed to pass the Georgia congress, permission was given to Rev. Lissner by the church to create an order of black nuns (Calypso, 2009). According to Calypso (2009), “In 1916, Elizabeth Barbara Williams, an African-American sister from Louisiana began working with Rev. Lissner to establish the order of the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. (Sister Williams became known as ‘Mother Theodore’)” (2009, para. 4).

The apostolic character of the black nuns serving in the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary has been evident from the start. The order expanded their missionary operations over the next several years to include Catholics and blacks in Harlem (Calypso, 2009). In this regard, Calypso reports that, “In Harlem, the Handmaids were originally charged with running a segregated nursery for working parents, particularly mothers who slept at work. The Handmaids also went on to work in additional ministries and education-based environments. In 1930, the Handmaids joined the Franciscan Order” (2009, para. 4). This sense of purpose and overarching mission has perhaps been one of the most important factors in minimizing acculturative stress among African missionary nuns. Indeed, Sister Loretta Theresa, a longtime Harlem resident and the current administrative minister for the Franciscan Handmaids’ congregation, emphasizes that, “The Catholic Church wouldn’t be Catholic if it wasn’t for us. I knew I was black, I knew I was Catholic… [W]hen the church was instituted it was made for all of us; my job is to be proud of both” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 4).

Another indication of the relatively small number of African missionary nuns serving within the three orders outlined by Dr. Copeland above can be discerned from Calypso’s report that Sister Theresa began her quest to become a nun in 1948, and has more than 60 years of a Franciscan Handmaid. According to Calypso, [Sister Theresa] estimates that at one point the order had as many as 70 or 80 sisters. But today, there are less than 30 active Franciscan Handmaids the Harlem convent headquarters” (2009, para. 5). Yet another indication of the relatively small number of African missionary nuns that have historically served in the United States can be discerned from Sister Theresa’s observation that, “We were never a large congregation” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 5).

Despite the paucity of precise numbers, research by Maryland-based National Black Catholic Congress Web site estimates that around 300 African-American nuns are currently serving in the United States (Calypso, 2009). According to Calypso, “[Sister] Theresa believes there is a direct parallel between the shrinking numbers of Catholic parishioners and the dwindling numbers of both men and women entering into a life of religious vocation” (2009, para. 5). Despite their relatively small numbers, the Franciscan Handmaids operate a nursery and continue to coordinate activities and share information with their colleagues in Africa (Calypso, 2009). In this regard, Calypso reports that, “These days, in addition to ongoing ministries, they also collaborate with communities of nuns from the Congo. [Sister Theresa notes that] “It’s our way of reaching out to the Congo and sharing what we have” (2009, para. 5).

Indeed, even some female church leaders have expressed their doubts about the viability of African missionary nuns serving in the United States in the past. For instance, according to Calypso, “Dr. Jamie Phelps, [the Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University and] an Adriatic Dominican nun with a doctoral degree in theology, knew by the time she was 13 that she was being called to become a nun. But Phelps never thought of joining an African-American congregation order” (2009, para. 5). From Dr. Phelps’s perspective, a career as a nun was not even on the table at the time. In this regard, Dr. Phelps reports that, “At the time, I thought [having] African-American order was wrong” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 5).

It required the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to change Sister Phelps’s perspectives concerning the legitimacy of black nuns serving in the United States, but the change was an important one. In this regard, Calypso adds that, “In 1968, she became one of the founding members of the National Black Sisters Conference” (2009, para. 6). The impetus for the change also translated into a collaborative approach to their missionary goals. According to Sister Phelps, “Our agenda at the time was to address the question collectively. What should women like us be doing in relationship to the struggle of black people. The church is supposed to transform society. There are all these issues confronting the black community both globally and locally” (cited in Calypso, 2009, para. 6).

Likewise, the Benedictine Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians in Tanzania periodically assigns African missionary nuns to the United States for training and in some cases to work. According to Popovici (2012), “Many nuns come here from Africa, where vocations have grown rapidly in the last few decades. They arrive in major cities or in rural pockets of the country to attend Catholic schools and study subjects such as nursing, English or canon law so that they can take the practical skills back home and train others” (para. 2). Although many if not most of these African missionary nuns are provided with full scholarships and enjoy free accommodations with neighboring religious orders, others are left to their own devices to survive in their new host country (Popovici, 2012). Some indication of the paucity of timely and relevant research concerning these and other types of acculturative stress experienced by African missionary nuns can be discerned from Popovici’s observation that, “Besides the occasional story in a local publication or a mention in the newsletter of a religious community, the sisters’ journeys to the U.S. And back seem to unfold quietly, below the radar of any institution that tracks the workings of the Catholic Church” (2012, para. 2).

Moreover, the relatively small numbers of African missionary nuns that have been assigned to work in the United States has further confounded efforts to examine their acculturation experiences. As Popovici points out, “Diocesan officials estimate that sisters from Africa (and other developing regions) have been filtering in and out of the U.S. To study — and also to work — with some regularity for least 20 years. But there is apparently no record of how many sisters have been here and gone back, and how many are here now” (Popovici, 2012, para. 3). In some cases, there has been no systematic effort to keep track of the numbers of African missionary nuns living and working in the United States. According to Popovici, “In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations said it has no research on the subject” (para. 3). Although there is some indication that the numbers of African missionary nuns in the United States increased slightly over the past 20 years but is now declining slightly, it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty just how many are involved and where in the United States that have been assigned (Popovici, 2012). As Popovici points out, “Meanwhile, diocesan officials in Chicago and New York say nuns from Africa keep arriving, but in smaller numbers than a few years ago — a change they attribute to a slow economy” (2012, para. 3).

Although no formal records are available for the numbers of African missionary nuns in the United States, anecdotal accounts from religious leaders also suggest they are relatively low. For instance, Sr. Joan McGlinchey, vicar at the Chicago archdiocese’s Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, reports that she only knows about 30 nuns who are from Africa who work in the archdiocese or are students (Popovici, 2012, para. 4). According to Popovici, “In her work over the past 20 years, she has noticed three common situations: Some of the sisters come here to stay with a sponsoring community and are studying while doing mission work, others come on their own to study (this is a group that sometimes ends up struggling), and others come as missionaries, in what has been described as a ‘reverse evangelization’ (2012, para. 4). According to Warner (2009), Reverse evangelization means that missionaries “have the ‘good news’ proclaimed to them by poor people” (p. 69). The vicar also added that the sister church in Africa was a “young church [with] abundant vocations” and efforts were made by diocese officials in the United States to groom nuns for missionary work in America (Popovic, 2012, para. 4). According to the vicar, “We went to evangelize them years ago, as missionaries, and now they’re coming back to help us” (cited in Popovici, 2012, para. 4). Some indication of the acculturative stress that has been experienced by African missionary nuns can be discerned from Popovici’s observations that, “But for some, life in the U.S. is not what they imagined. Students — particularly if they come here without the support of a local community — sometimes don’t have enough money for rent or other living expenses, their scholarships may not cover tuition, and their immigration status makes it difficult to find a job. Some of them experience racism for the first time in their lives” (2012, para. 3).

Another challenge experienced by these African missionary nuns has been integration into mainstream American society. In this regard, Popovici emphasizes that, “Integration into American culture is another challenge. It’s a whole way of American behavior, responsibilities. The structure of the church is different” (2012, para. 4). In fact, based on past experiences with African missionary nuns assigned to the United States, the acculturation process may be too challenging for some younger members of the order. For instance, Popovici adds that, “The culture shock can test a sister’s vocation which is why communities often send to the U.S. nuns who are older and have made their final profession” (2012, para. 4). Although individual resilience factors and the location of the assignment will have major influences on acculturation outcomes, the close nature of family relationships in many African nations represents a major constraint to the transition from native to host country. As Popovici points out, “To send someone away from the mother community at too young an age is a hazard. Sometimes it’s too much” (2012, para. 5). One diocese official in New York reported “no more than a handful of nuns from Africa that she knows about, who are currently staying with communities in Brooklyn or Queens (the borough of Queens is part of the Brooklyn diocese)” (Popovici, 2012, para. 5).

In other parts of the country, African missionary nuns are working towards degrees in education, theology, canon law, English and psychology, among other subjects, in the following U.S. communities:

1. Two nuns from Tanzania are staying with a community of Benedictine sisters in St. Leo, Florida;

2. Two nuns from Tanzania are also living with a community of Benedictine sisters in Atchison, Kansas;

3. At least four nuns (two from Kenya and two from Tanzania) are living at the house of the Congregation of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Pennsylvania;

4. Two sisters from Nigeria live with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee, Wisconsin;

5. A partnership between three Franciscan communities in the United States and one in Cameroon sponsors four nuns from Bamenda, Cameroon who completed their advanced degrees in May 2012 and both likely remain in the United States for missionary work (Popovici, 2012).

Taken together, the foregoing numbers of African missionary nuns are relatively small, but as Popovici points out, “So far, the total number of African nuns here is anybody’s guess” (2012, para. 5).

The manner in which these African missionary nuns have experienced acculturative stress can also only be conjectured given the paucity of timely and relevant research, but some indication of what they have experienced can also be discerned from other missionaries serving in different countries. For example, the relationship between religion, culture and mode of dress required by the religious orders subscribed to by African missionary nuns is not always constraining and may even be a factor in facilitating acculturation (Arthur, 1999). In this regard, Arthur (1999) emphasizes that, “Freedom can be expressed by asserting a changed identity within an ethno-religious subculture. Dress was used as a means of negotiating a new social environment within these religious groups such as the role of dress in the Black Church as a means of positive ethnic identification” (1999, p. 37). In addition, a unique event in the lives of all Catholic nuns serving in the United States was the relinquishment of religious habits for secular dress following significant structural reforms in the Catholic Church (Arthur, 1999).

As noted throughout, though, the individual experiences of missionaries serving abroad can be difficult or even personally harmful by creating undue stress and emotional turmoil (Swanson, 1995). Therefore, there is a clear need for African-based mission agencies to provide their missionary nuns with the training they need to facilitate the acculturation process (Kimber, 2012).

Based on long years of experience, the Catholic Church employs a rigorous training regimen for its missionaries (York, 1994). According to Kimber (2012), although every missionary’s training needs will differ somewhat, some general training topics that should be addressed include pragmatic advice concerning cross-cultural differences that will be likely be encountered in the host country. Although this training can be provided after the arrival of missionaries in their host country. Kimber recommends that, “If possible, it is best if some aspects of training could be covered before the missionary has left in order to help them plan their goodbyes and to leave in a positive and healthy way” (p. 211).


Akomolafe, F. (2011, July). The sad tale of African immigrants in Europe. New African, 508, 94-


Andrews, L. (1999). Spiritual, family, and ministry satisfaction among missionaries. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 27(2), 107-118.

Arthur, L.B. (1999). Religion, dress and the body. New York: Berg.

Buscemi, C.P. (2011, Summer). Acculturation: State of the science in nursing. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 18(2), 39-45.

Calypso, A. (2009, August 26). The real ‘Sister Act’: Black nuns in America. NBCUniversal.

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Choi, H. (2001). Cultural marginality: A concept analysis with implications for immigrant adolescents, issues in Comprehensive Pediatrie Nursing, 24, 193-206.

Flannery, W.P., Reise, S.P., & Yu, J. (2001). An empirical comparison of acculturation models.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(8), 1035-1045.

Gibson, M.A. (2001). Immigrant adaptation and patterns of acculturation. Human Development,

44, 19-23.

Haderle, I. (1999, Spring). Women and lay Activism: Aspects of acculturation in the German

Lutheran Churches of Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1870-1917. Michigan Historical Review,

25(1), 25-30.

Kimber, T.R. (2012, Fall). The role of spiritual development in the cross-cultural reentry adjustment of missionaries. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 40(3), 211-219.

McNamara, J.A. (1999). Sisters in arms: Catholic nuns through two millennia. Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press.

Navara, G.S., & James, S. (2005). Acculturative stress of missionaries: Does religious orientation affect religious coping and adjustment? International Journal of Intercultural

Relations, 29, 39-58.

Peterson, D. (1996, August 11). Homesick missionaries face culture shock on return to America.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), 5.

Popovici, A. (2012, July 18). African sisters journey to U.S. For education, mission. National Catholic Reporter, 48(20), 37-39.

Swanson, J. (1995). Echoes of the call: Identity and ideology among American missionaries in Ecuador. New York: Oxford University Press.

Usarski, F. (2008, January 1), ‘The Last Missionary to Leave the Temple Should Turn off the Light’: Sociological remarks on the decline of Japanese ‘immigrant’ Buddhism in Brazil.

Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 35(1), 39-40.

Warner, K.D. (2009, Spring). The farm workers and the Franciscans: Reverse evangelization as social prompt for conversion. Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, 9(1), 69-88.

York, D.E. (1999). Cross-cultural training programs. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

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